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  • In his latest Mailbag, Jon Wertheim explains how he thinks tennis should deal with the reality that sports gambling is here, and here to stay.
By Jon Wertheim
May 01, 2019

Hey everyone…

HOUSEKEEPING

• On last week’s podcast, Mark Ein and I talked about his decision to take over the Citi Open and what tennis can learn from esports.

• This week’s guest: new NYC neighbor Rennae Stubbs swings by to talk actual tennis—athletes, running around on clay, hitting a ball—and not politics and backroom toxicity.

• This was sent to me last week from reader Gerry G. Note the names and the rankings order.

Onward…

MAILBAG

Tennis Channel has been running this segment discussing the betting odds of matches in Monte Carlo. It is very weird and off-brand. What are your thoughts?
@vanfanusa

• We could do a whole mailbag on sports gambling, and I feel compelled to link this piece we did last month for 60 Minutes. Me? I go libertarian here. Sports gambling has moved in from the cultural margins, and sunlight always beats shadows. European sports were ahead of the curve. And after the Supreme Court effectively left it to the states to make their own sports gambling policy, U.S. sports are figuring out how integrate—and profit from—this new institution/revenue source.

Long a taboo, gambling on games has become acceptable sports media fare, as well.  Just as I have no problem with an ESPN “bad beats” segment, I have no problem with a tennis network giving odds on tour-level matches. But tennis needs consistency. The sports allows the ITF to make millions from its “data partnership,” which helps oddsmakers and is basically code for “everyone is making a buck from this new revenue stream and we want to as well.” But then tournaments are prohibited from seeking sponsorship from gaming companies and players are prohibited from seeking gambling-related endorsements?

My issue: the same free market principles that make sports gambling an appealing proposition to so many fans also apply to corruption. It stands to reason that unpaid workers (i.e. college athletes) are susceptible. And it stands to reason that low-level athletes—able to make far more in manipulating results than in prize money—are susceptible as well. The NBA is okay with gambling on NBA-level games. It does not sanction gambling on minor league games. The same should be true in tennis. Want to sanction gambling on Wimbledon? Fine. But when the ITF doesn’t end live scoring at low-level tournaments, it’s a gross dereliction of duty and a violation of basic economics. Anytime you ask rational actors to act irrationally, problems will follow.

Within the next two years, Whitney Oswuigwe will be top 5 in WTA.  She has a great game.
Writer who just saw Whitney Osuigwe play, and whose name was carelessly misplaced by Jon.

• It’s funny, a few months ago, we got a similar email from a former player about Coco Gauff, essentially making the point that when we project into the future about women’s tennis, it is essential to include Gauff’s name. As for Osuigwe, she just won the Charlottesville event and now—still months from turning 18—is up to world No. 139. 

Again, I am ambivalent. You want to be honest to the facts on the ground. You also want to avoid being part of the burdening-expectation brigade. Maybe this is the takeaway: on the women’s side, anyway, U.S. tennis appears well-positioned.

I noticed that Osaka debuted her new Nike gear in Stuttgart, and I was surprised to see logos for Nissan and ANA featured prominently next to the Nike logo. I thought Nike had a strict policy against their athletes having any other logos or patches on their gear? Any inside scoop on why Nike allowed her an exception (something not even Federer, Nadal, Serena, or Tiger Woods have had)? They must have really wanted her badly to have agreed to that. Though I wonder, did she give up extra money she could have had from them in return for that exception (Not that it matters much—I’m sure she’s more than making up the difference from those other endorsements)?
—Dennis Wheeler

• Everything is negotiable. Props to her agent for negotiating an exemption. A sports lawyer specializing in this area writes: "In virtually all instances, Nike’s individual sport apparel endorsement alliances prohibit the athlete endorser from having any third-party commercial branding on the athlete's NIKE-branded ‘kit’ (e.g., see Serena, Tiger, Sharapova, formerly Roger, etc.).  The cash paid by Nike in such endorsement deals essentially includes a ‘buy out’ of all ‘patch deal’ branding the applicable governing body (e.g., WTA) would otherwise permit.  However, in rare instances, Nike has not required a ‘clean shirt’; most notably, in Nike’s deal with Li Na and in its recent deal with Naomi Osaka.  This is indeed the exception and not the rule for the Nike sports marketing gurus, and any such patch deals of course could never be any sort of apparel (or footwear) brand.  Further, it is possible that Osaka's Nike deal perhaps limits her third-party patch deals to Japanese based brands (e.g., ANA and Nissin), noting that Li Na had Mercedes branding on her Nike kit for many years."   

Love your writing, Jon, but disappointed with this tepid take on Gimelstob (even though you did call out your own conflict of interest).
@stefancalepak

• I’ve always said that I want this column to reflect faithfully the voice of tennis. This was fairly representative of the mail and social media responses I received. Most of you had strong feelings thunderously condemning Gimelstob, and most of you didn’t think last week’s ‘bag went far enough in doing do. Ultimately, I stand by what I wrote. I called on Justin to do the decent and honorable thing and remove himself from the situation before. The longer he waited, the more he discredited himself. And here we are.

This situation is so fluid—it’s Tuesday night and I’ve been told that an announcement is forthcoming—that I am reluctant to delve too deeply tonight. But I am happy to revisit, and to discuss, how tennis lost (and then found) its conscience, how the (mainly British) media handled and mishandled this, why Stan Wawrinka won an army of admirers, what this revealed about the sport’s corrosive and growth-stunting conflicts-o-rama, where the ATP goes from here, etc.

Speaking of which….a sports lawyer, who only tangentially follows tennis, asked me the other day: given Gimelstob’s problematic circumstances, might the ATP board reconsider March’s defenestration of CEO Chris Kermode? My kneejerk reaction: no. That was a legitimate board vote. But might a new board vote again or seek to reconsider Kermode’s ouster? That could be interesting. A few of you weighed in, though most did not want their opinions published. Here’s Bryan T. of Brooklyn:

While I do not have the benefit of the ATP Tour, Inc. Certificate of Incorporation or Bylaws, in order to invalidate the (seemingly) duly convened ATP Board vote at the March 2019 (Indian Wells) ATP Board of Directors Meetings—at which less than the required majority of voting Board members voted to renew the employment agreement of the current ATP CEO/Executive Chairman (the “CEO Vote”) (Mr. Gimelstob was reportedly one of the “no” votes)—the ATP governing docs would likely need to have a draconian provision that would, for example, somehow invalidate the vote of a Board member who, at some point following the Board vote in question, pled no contest to a criminal charge, and that such criminal proceeding plea would result in the invalidation of such Board member’s prior Board vote.  Safe to say, Jon, that the ATP governing docs have no such provision (or similar provision).         

Unless the ATP governing docs provide otherwise, it is also worth noting Section 141(b) of the Delaware General Corporation Act (ATP Tour, Inc. is a Delaware corporation), which provides in relevant part:

“The certificate of incorporation or bylaws may prescribe other qualifications for directors.” [We assume Mr Gimelstob had the requisite qualifications under the ATP governing docs at the time of the CEO vote (and, indeed, may still have the requisite qualifications to serve, notwithstanding his recent no contest plea.]

“Each director shall hold office until such director's successor is elected and qualified or until such director's earlier resignation or removal.” [While Mr. Gimelstob may or may not be re-elected (at the upcoming ATP Rome Board Meetings) to continue to serve as an ATP Board Member (or even if Mr. Gimlstob resigns prior to the Rome Meetings), based on the facts and information we have, he was duly serving as an ATP Board Member at the time of the CEO Vote at what was a duly organized meeting of the ATP Board.]

Thus, despite Mr. Gimselstob’s recent no contest plea, the validity of the CEO vote does not appear to be in any jeopardy.    

And Steven from Orange County, Calif. says the following: 

It is…worth noting that even in the highly unlikely event the ATP Bylaws permitted retroactive invalidation of a vote that was otherwise properly given, the invalidation would only be relevant if the initiative not to renew Kermode’s contract passed by only one vote.  Unless it was by such a razor-thin margin, this discussion is purely academic. That being said, that Gimelstob was one of the most vociferous opponents of Kermode (I believe), may cause people to reconsider the soundness of the decision and call for a revote. 

Launching off Aaron-from-Illinois's letter: I want more grass events, and I DEFINITELY want a Masters 1000 on grass.  The current (un)balance of surfaces makes no sense to me. There are three clay Masters 100s and six hard-court Masters 1000s, yet none on grass—huh?

There's the point about clay and grass being easier on the athlete's body. That's important.  There's the point about clay and grass being the traditional surfaces of the sport. That's important.  There's the contrast of them, highlighting different talents and skill sets. That's important. 

Finding appropriate venues and the money involved mean, well, not much for a sport that rakes in hundreds of millions globally.  If you build it, they will come.

Carpet and wood are already extinct surfaces; let's not add the original surface of the sport to that list.  Balance the tour a bit.
Chris

• We all love grasscourt tennis. Find the venue.

Alexander Zverev is supposed to be the Next Big Thing. Now he is struggling to win matches. I was surprised you weren’t tougher on him last week. If he is not ready for the challenge, move over and we’ll find someone who is!
Carl. P., Atlanta

• I stand by this one, too. Zverev, no doubt, is having a disappointing year. It’s also only the first week of May. He only just turned 22. He’s in a dispute with an agent, which may well be siphoning some of his attention and mental energy. He has a dozen more years ahead of him.

For the “get off my lawn” portion of today’s show...in this binary you-suck-you-rock culture, fomented by social media, is there no room for nuance? Zverev can have a disappointing few months without people determining that his career is irredeemable and he will never win. Think back to the early 1990s and how people were so patient with Andre Agassi before he paid off this talent. (That was a joke.)

Who do you think the closest tennis equivalent to Steph Curry is? As in, not physically imposing like Durant or Lebron, but deadly with a ball in his hand, especially at buzzer time. Also, every kid who grows up wants to be Steph rather than anyone else these days.

Any tennis parallels? Please say someone more interesting than Federer or Nadal.
Deepak

Shooting airballs here. This is an intra-sport comparison that fails me. Undersized, money at crunch time and a slick shotaker (presumably ruling out a counterpuncher)? Oy. Shapovalov maybe? Simona Halep? Ash Barty?

Here’s something kinda, sorta related to consider: when I was a kid, everyone wanted to be like Jordan. You’d go to the park and practice dunking on an eight-foot goal. Now? All my son and his friends (and Dame Lillard) want to do is emulate Curry and shoot from halfcourt. Who cares about dunking on a small goal when you can swish a 40-footer?

I see something similar in tennis. Time was, you would try to hit either Agassi’s leaping forehand or crush a serve like Boris Becker or Sampras. Now, you’re more likely to try a bit of shotmaking. Which is to say, it may not be interesting but maybe Federer/Nadal is the right answer after all.

SHOTS, MISCELLANY

• Congrats to Sloane Stephens and Jozy Altidore.

• Less happily—RIP, former Tennis Channel producer Gary Lang.

•  The United States Tennis Association announced that David Brewer will step down as US Open Tournament Director and USTA Chief Professional Tennis Officer following the 2019 US Open.  Brewer began his career at the USTA in the spring of 1997.

• Oracene Williams during the NBA playoffs?

• A few years ago Jim Courier, Martina Navratilova and I met the remarkable Jake Agna in Cuba, where he is setting up a youth tennis program. He it still at it. He writes, “This is a new video about our summer parks program.  My new dream or delusion is to bring tennis to every public school in America. I’m in Springfield, Mass. playing in very poor schools, heading to New Orleans on Thursday. With the new equipment, every kid should get a chance to play.

READER RIFF

• Take us out, Skip Schwartzman:

I get to chime in here because I’m “last week’s correspondent."

When Elsie Misbourne writes, "but isn't it a given that the global TV audience accounts for the overwhelming percentage of folks watching any match,” she’s technically correct if you revise her wording: “any televised match.” 

Given that the global TV audience for most matches at any tourney amount to, well, zero (most matches are not televised), the percentages don’t hold. Yes, the total number of viewers for televised matches probably outnumbers the live spectators at the non-televised matches, but should the entire sport be changed to accommodate the relatively few matches that are televised, even if their viewership total is greater?

Again, this boy votes no.

(Consider, as a consequence of a more widespread rules change, if coaching wouldn’t then make sense [fairness?] at all levels of the sport. Can you imagine the scenes at 14-and-under tourneys with parents on court as coaches? And your reply in another ‘bag—"since when is a unique quality a liability?”—is spot on.)

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